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Conductor Joana Carneiro Keeps Climbing

February 26, 2015

When Maestra Joana Carneiro returns to the United States to lead the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra on February 26, she does so amid conducting a well-received 10-performance run of John Adams and Peter Sellars’ opera, A Flowering Tree, at Sweden’s Gothenburg Opera. This major engagement follows her gig conducting Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary at English National Opera. Add in her appointment as music director of the Portuguese National Symphony, which also plays in Portugal’s major opera house, and her position official guest conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon, the only private orchestra in her native country, and you have one very busy maestra.

Carneiro’s association with Adams dates back to 2006, when she served as his assistant at the premiere of A Flowering Tree in Vienna. When the same production traveled to Chicago, she not only assisted Adams but also shared conducting duties with him.

“I’m conducting at the Gothenburg Opera because of the generosity of John Adams and Peter Sellars,” Carneiro told SFCV via Skype. “Peter was also the director at the Vienna premiere, and we had already worked together once before in Paris. I also had the great privilege of working with both John and Peter at ENO.” "I’ve been nurtured as a conductor all my life … first from my family, who felt it was a fantastic idea. All my teachers in Portugal, and all the cultural institutions have really invested actively in my artistic growth."-- Conductor Joana Carneiro

“I love John Adams’ music for A Flowering Tree,” she enthuses. “The more I conduct it, the more I love it. It’s so beautiful, and so filled with optimism that it feels really good to perform it.”

Contemporary and 20th-century opera is conspicuous in Carneiro’s schedule, both present and past,. Even before she conducts Stravinsky and Auden’s opera, A Rake’s Progress, in Lisbon, her Berkeley Symphony concert will includes the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s orchestral arrangement of his work for mezzo-soprano, Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, with Sasha Cooke as soloist. Some years back, her gig as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s assistant in Los Angeles led to assisting him in the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, Adriana Mater, at Paris Opera, in a production directed by Sellars.

“I’ve had a deep connection with contemporary opera because it’s how I started,” she explains. “Now that I have this new job in Lisbon, I will definitely start working on older pieces. Next season, I will conduct one of the Mozart operas, and I will slowly incorporate other, older repertoire.”

She is also quick to point out that the February 26 program in Berkeley includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. That performance is the culmination of a Brahms cycle that has already seen performances of his other three symphonies.

At the conclusion of our chat, I asked Carneiro about her experience as a woman conductor in a male-dominated profession. She replied:

Because each woman’s experience is different, I can only speak of my own experience as a woman conductor.

I have never felt that there’s a problem with me being a woman conductor. If I didn’t win an audition, or something didn’t go well with an orchestra, I never felt that the reason had to do with me being a woman. There was always a musical reason behind it.

I’ve been nurtured as a conductor all my life. First it was from my family, who felt it was a fantastic idea. All my teachers in Portugal, and all the cultural institutions have really invested actively in my artistic growth. And when I went to the United States, everything has felt based on musical issues rather than gender issues."

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.